Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Daring to Ask the Question

Ben Cameron, head of Theatre Communications Group, the service organization for non-profit theatres and publisher of "American Theatre," asks theatres to ask the tough question in his short essay, "Is it time to stop?".

It's of course a strange query for a man in his position, but that's why I like it. It's not a call for the end of non-profit theatre -- don't be silly. It's a call for theatre companies to ask themselves: why are we doing this?

No, really, ask: why? What's the purpose, what's the mission. Has the mission been fulfilled? Is it time to end this one and start another? As I've noted many times before, regional theatre in America is in a state of transition, as the first generation founders of the regional wave hand over reigns to those who weren't born when the movement started. The question is important, right now.

Here's a quote from Cameron:

"Given our [the regional theatre's] relative youth, many of us are now confronting issues of succession and departure of leaders for the first time. Indeed, a quick snapshot of our membership in 2003 revealed that some 45 percent of us still had at least one founder at the helm. Not surprisingly, funders now increasingly press us about "succession plans," and consultants regularly urge boards to create such plans for the health of the organization.

"Hidden in these discussions is all too often an unexamined assumption that a theatre should continue. As a culture, we tend to prize most highly those organizations that have a long legacy....

"Well, let me be heretical for a moment: Is longevity everything it's cracked up to be...?

"Every succession moment asks that collective to assess, measure and project the future of that central artistic energy. When the generating artist leaves an organization, what will now be left behind? Do we understand not only the implications of our current values for making the choice of successor but that the new arriving artist will inherently bring a different vision? And, frankly, do we have the dedication to increase, in all probability, our dedications of time and energy and resources to this new work?

"Such understanding demands that we ask first those critical questions that are strikingly absent from many plans I've seen. Why do we need to continue to exist? What is the urgent, positive, galvanizing need we will fulfill—a need that will energize others and gather them to us? Is there a social need (e.g., to bring joy into children's lives), an artistic need (to see the creativity of specific artists reach its fullest potential)—a need that can be clearly defined, embraced and framed?"

It's seems so easy a question, doesn't it? But too many non-profits don't seem to ask it, or if they do, the answers are not really compelling. How many regional theatres are simply out there as a "platform" for more work -- not a particular type or style of work, but just more of it?

How many regional theatres have some type of voice that isn't being institutionalized?

I think the regional theatre movement in this country has been an enormous success; for decades, it has brought challenging, exciting theatre to parts of the country that would never have seen such quality otherwise. There are great, completely under-appreciated artists working outside of New York and L.A., and new leaders are emerging.

But that doesn't relieve them of asking the question: who are we, and what are we trying to accomplish?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ladies and Gentleman: Frodo!

The gargantuan production of "The Lord of the Rings" opens Thursday in Toronto. Responses to the previews have been mixed.

I await with enormous suspense the initial verdict.

Here's a preview piece from the LA Times.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Great Conversation at Isaac's

I am really, really impressed with the insightful conversation over on Isaac’s blog. Check out his entry on Charles Isherwood’s playful review of the play “Indoor/Outdoor,” but make sure to read the comments. It’s probably the smartest, most accurate discussion of reviewing theatre I’ve read.

I’ve just posted a long comment, so go check it out.

I’ve been neglecting my blog mostly because I’ve been reviewing so much. Here are links to some recent reviews of mine for “Variety.” Warning: It's been a tough few weeks for L.A. theatregoing....

Dr. Dolittle: Tommy Tune re-works a failed touring show.

Hitchcock Blonde: American premiere of an English play about the filmmaker's penchant for blondes

The Cherry Orchard: With Annette Bening and Alfred Molina.

The Times They Are A-Changin': Twyla Tharp's follow-up to "Movin' Out," to the music of Bob Dylan

Rock of Ages: a jukebox musical for those who adore 80s music

The Importance of Being Earnest: Sir Peter Hall directs Lynne Redgrave as Lady Bracknell

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Lestat: More Blood Please

I caught the new musical "Lestat" in its tryout run in San Francisco. Based on the Anne Rice vampire novels, this show has a lot going for it marketing-wise, with Elton John writing the music and his longtime collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin, making his first go at a stage show.

This is definitely a show in some trouble. The next few days will likely see announcements regarding a director change, and there are now rumors it may not even make it to NYC for its March launch.

I'm going to throw in my 2 cents about what this $12+ million production needs to do to improve, and fast. It's up to Warner Bros. Theatricals producer Gregg Maday to keep the focus where it needs to be.

The biggest problem with the show is that it's just plain tepid. From the opening number, everything feels incredibly flat. The songs mosly all sound the same, and don't give the actors a chance to show off vocal skills. The story's muddy. The set, while not dragging the show down, has projections that look like a weak web-site. In tone it feels like it's targeted to a family audience, which means it's not sexy, it's not thrilling, and it's not deep. We've already seen that bloodless vampire shows fail fast.

So, here's the path I'd lay out if I were Mr. Maday:

1. Hire a new director. This radical work requires that kind of break.

2. Get the whole team together to clarify Lestat's emotional through-line. I don't know these books well -- I read "Interview with a Vampire" years ago and saw the movie. But I just couldn't follow where Lestat was at regarding his moral dilemma -- the need to kill to survive. Sometimes he agonizes, sometimes he urges others (like Louis) to just get over it. I couldn't enter the character's mind. I don't necessarily agree with some reviews that there's "too much story." I just couldn't tell what the inner story was, and therefore his adventures had no drive to them and felt piled on. This is where it's more important to be simple than to be faithful to Rice's original.

All else follows from this single charge.

3. Once the story has been simplified and clarified, the director should make a list of at least 8 to 10 moments in the show that should thrill the audience with climactic emotion. So the main tack here is: clarify the story and then attack the bloodlessness of the current show.

4. Half of these miniature climaxes should be musical moments, so send John and Taupin off to work on rewriting at least 4 or 5 of the songs to achieve these. I don't recall the last time I saw an audience clap at the end of songs with such un-moved politeness. Right now, the only song that even registers as dramatic is "I Want More," sung by Lestat and Louis's daughter. The rest are all pop ballads sung pretty much at the same register. (Elton John reveals in his video interview at that he wrote the score in 11 days singing all the characters himself. On the down side, that explains why they all sound so similar. On the upside, it means he can re-write them fast.). Also charge them with making sure the actors get a chance to achieve real musical crescendoes.

5. Two or three thrilling moments should be scenic spectacles. The disintegration scenes as is, with a projected ribbon of flame, don't work. I don't think there's time to re-do the whole set design if you want to get to Broadway on time, so focus on improving/adding a few special effects.

6. Pump up the sexiness of Lestat's relationships, and face the fact that this story has loads of homo-eroticism. To work, Lestat must be a passionate figure and as is that essential element is undermined by a fear of expressing the obviously sexual undercurrents here. This is an area where the show could be MORE faithful to Rice. Lestat is NOT Ennis Del Mar!

Yes, this is a big risk, but now's the time for big risks. This show needs passion.

7. Achieving this passion may require re-casting some of the supporting roles; there are several fine singers with only mediocre acting skills.

That's plenty to focus on, but I also think it's do-able.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Everyone's a Critic

Hey, anyone notice yet that the web is interactive?

Both the NY Times and the LA Times now allow readers to post brief critiques of shows, and this seems to be picking up some steam. I've been reading the postings of late, and once the number of reviews reaches a certain critical mass (maybe 5 or 6 of them), they give a great overall impression of the show. Some provide fine insights, some are just raw opinion (loved it, hated it).

I'm enormously entertained by them. And I'm hoping that some of the role of the newspaper critic -- the burden of telling people whether or not they should see it, depending on their tastes -- can be taken over by this ability to post a variety of perspectives. That would allow me to respond with greater depth to the work at hand.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Remembering has a stunningly comprehensive list of theatrical folks who passed away in 2005. Plenty of familiar names (I was surprised that some major publications failed to mention the deaths of Arthur Miller and August Wilson in their year-end coverage). But the list is worth looking at for the less familiar ones. I didn't know Peter Zeisler, longtime leader of Theatre Communications Group, had passed away.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lewis and Clark and One Bad Play

Here's my review of Robert Shenkkan's newest play, "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," which sends the explorers on a trip to Iraq.